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To learn more about the Latino Community Association, visit latinocommunityassociation.org. If you’re interested in volunteering with the LCA, contact Mary Murphy at 541-788-0473 or mary@latinocommunityassociation.org .

John Cioffi has been helping 75-year-old Raul Lopez learn to read and write English for about a year. The two meet once a week for 90 minutes at Lopez’s home in southwest Redmond. On this sunny winter afternoon, Cioffi sits next to Lopez, a retired construction worker, as he practices reading from a notebook.

The two were matched through the volunteer tutoring program of the Latino Community Association, which also offers English classes and other services as part of its mission to “empower our Latino families to thrive by creating opportunities for advancement and building bridges that unite and strengthen us all,” according to the nonprofit’s website.

Lopez speaks fluent Spanish and English, but he never learned to read or write either language.

Upon seeing Lopez’s work since the last meeting, Cioffi said, “Wow, you did a lot.”

“Well, you know, I wasn’t just sitting on my a--. I worked a little bit,” said Lopez, who had just returned from visiting his ex-wife in the Willamette Valley.

When Lopez’s cellphone rang, he told the caller he was busy and would call back.

“Another girlfriend,” he said, sparking laughter. “They won’t leave me alone!”

A moment later, Lopez went back to reading from the notebook.

“I will see my,” he began, then paused. “I don’t know,” he said to Cioffi.

“Yeah, you know,” Cioffi said.

“Doctor,” continued Lopez. “I will see my doctor on Monday.” He turned to Cioffi and added, “And I went and saw him Monday.”

Lopez was born and raised in Texas, where his formal schooling lasted only until third grade.

He dropped out of elementary school to go to work, Cioffi explained. “He picked cotton in the cotton fields, actually. And so his whole life has been hard work, manual labor, construction.”

There were later efforts to go back to school, but they didn’t take, Lopez said.

“I was going to school at night, but I was drinking too much, so I couldn’t decide what I wanted to drop off. So I dropped off the writing, the reading. I went back to drinking.”

During his first marriage, which lasted 20 years, Lopez relied on his wife to handle bills and other tasks that might require reading. After the two divorced, Lopez remarried — and similarly leaned on his second wife to read and write.

“She was doing all the paperwork, the bills and all that,” he said. “All I was doing was working and working and making the money.”

After her death five years ago, Lopez decided it was time to learn to read and write.

“I said, ‘What am I doing just sitting here? I’m not getting anywhere.’”

He reached out to the Latino Community Association, which linked him with Cioffi, a longtime, mostly retired business coach.

“I have a lot of coaching experience. It’s usually with companies, but I love to do stuff like (tutor),” said Cioffi, who learned of the volunteer tutoring program from a friend.

That same friend also got his wife involved in teaching English at the association.

When he met Lopez, Cioffi said, “I was very impressed with how brave he was. Here was a guy in his mid-70s who was basically saying, ‘I don’t know how to read and write English, and I want to learn.’ Who would do that? It takes a brave person, I think.”

Along with tutoring Lopez in reading and writing, “We have a good time. We laugh, and joke around,” Cioffi said.

Making a match

The easy rapport between the two is typical of volunteer tutors and students, said Mary Murphy, volunteer coordinator for the association. In fact, in its call for tutors at volunteercentraloregon.org, a website for those seeking opportunities to give back, it reads, “Many tutors and students do field trips, cook together, or communicate in-between lessons for fun or because help is needed in their job. You can arrange whatever works for you. Most partners become good friends.”

According to Murphy, the Latino Community Association has close to 90 student-tutor pairs like Lopez and Cioffi. An LCA office and event volunteer herself prior to coming on board, Murphy was hired a little over a year ago to deal with the volunteer tutoring program’s then-lengthy lists of students and tutors awaiting matches.

Most students learn about the volunteer tutor program either by word of mouth, or when they come in to the association’s office, 2445 NE Division St., in Bend for language classes or other services, Murphy said. Potential students come into the office and are put on the waiting list, which she’s successfully worked to reduce.

Likewise, potential volunteers come in for an interview with Murphy, who makes note of their interest level and any past tutoring experience.

“Once I have a tutor who’s ready to tutor, and a student who is interested, I call both people,” she said.

Murphy conducts an introductory meeting between students and tutors. “We all sit down, we talk, get to know each other a little bit. … During that meeting, we talk about goals they want to set up and work toward,” she said. “Most of the program is conversational, but some people might need more support in reading and writing. Some might have more unique needs.”

Volunteers and students then figure out for themselves where and when to meet.

“Typically, people meet once a week for about an hour, and then they’re kind of set on their own. They meet regularly on their own. They communicate on their own,” said Murphy, who serves as a liaison as needed. “It’s an independent program for (them) to meet on their own, and that’s kind of where that friendship develops and that relationship is built.”

Though it wasn’t done before her tenure, Murphy is conducting semi-annual evaluations “to see how everyone is doing, if the student is progressing, trying to get those kind of concrete numbers for my grants, but also for us to know that it’s working.”

The tutoring program is great for anyone interested in volunteering with the association, Murphy said. No Spanish language skills are required to tutor, unlike volunteering in the administrative office or at Latino Community Association events.

“It’s almost better because when they meet, it forces the student to only speak in English and practice in English during that time that they’re working with their tutor,” Murphy said. “It’s a great program for anyone who has English skills, or might have a background in ESL, but just doesn’t have the Spanish skills (to) work in the office or in any other programs” at the association.

Murphy asks tutors for a minimum commitment of three months, “but life happens. Sometimes, two matches don’t last that long,” she said. Sometimes, though, the matches last years. One volunteer has been tutoring a couple for almost three years.

“He’s like, ‘I’m ready for another student, too,’” she said.

Twice a year, the Latino Community Association hosts a training in English as a second language, and other types of trainings are being developed to give tutors additional support.

Though Latinos represent the largest population the organization works with, the association also helps other immigrant communities, as well, according to Murphy.

“We have a woman from China in a conversation class right now. We get people from all over different parts of the world in our English classes, too,” she said. “We get people who speak Portuguese. We support anyone who comes through our doors.”

Not giving up

Cioffi said that when he met Lopez at the association, he thought, “Well, I’ll give it a try. Maybe I can help him. Maybe he’ll throw me out of the house. I don’t know.”

“Well, no, that’s not going to happen,” Lopez said. “We’re too involved already.”

The 75-year-old student read another sentence: “I want — WENT — to the school to see my teacher today.”

“Perfect. Nice sentence. Good work,” Cioffi said. “A year ago, this guy didn’t even know the alphabet hardly.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Lopez said. “I’m happy, you know, that we found each other. We’ve been doing real good together. I keep telling him I’m going to give up, but he gets mad, and he won’t let me.”

A moment later, Lopez said, “I appreciate what John’s doing for me. He keeps telling me he wants me to write a book … I don’t think it’s going to happen, but still I’m not going to give up. I’m going to try. I’m going to try to do something for myself.”

Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

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